After directing two of the most genuinely idiosyncratic genre movies of the 1990s: Hardware and Dust Devil—the former is a frenzied cyberpunk dystopia splatter film that exists at the exact intersection of Mad Max and The Terminator, the latter an African spaghetti western with hints of mystic horror—South African genre filmmakers Richard Stanley makes his cinematic return thirty years later with his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s personal favorite of his own stories, Color Out of Space.
Starring Nicolas Cage as the head of the Gardner family whose property is infected by a meteor that begins to mutate the biology and psychology of everything it touches, Stanley’s film weaponizes the actor’s meta-comedic persona, psychedelic imagery and grotesque body horror to craft a film that is on an irregular and grotesque wavelength of its own making. A movie that loses its own mind and feels as paranoid, cruel, ludicrous and radiation-poisoned as its characters. As the narrator near the end of Lovecraft’s story remarks: “What it was, only God knows.”
Stanley has remained true to that vision and we sat down with him to discuss UFOs, John Carpenter’s The Thing, cancer, and witchcraft.
The Film Stage: One thing I’ve always loved about this particular Lovecraft story is the focus on not just the unknowable but the intangible–the things happening all around us all the time that our outside typical spectrum of visibility, that we can’t even begin to perceive or comprehend. I wanted to begin with your relationship to that inexplicable. Lovecraft was obviously obsessed with this sense of an intangible cosmic expressiveness and based on your own work such as Hardware it’s clear you share a certain sense unpredictable, sometimes beautiful strangeness that evokes something similar. What does that Lovecraftian metaphysical mean to you?
Richard Stanley: I was indoctrinated to Lovecraft’s universe at a very early age by my mother, and H.P. Lovecraft was her favorite author, so she started reading me his stories from the time I was about 7 or 8 which I think broadened by perspective. By the time I was 12-13 I had a pretty good knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. So, I guess it’s pretty much infected the way that I view my life ever since. A great many Lovecraftian concepts have come into the domain of real science in the 21st century: a good example being Lovecraft talks about say non-Euclidean alien geometry and I recall at school when I used this term “non-Euclidean” in an essay the teacher put a big red ring around it and said, “There’s no such thing.” Marked me down for it. To a point of fact, we now realize that we have chaos science and fractal geometry, and that non-Euclidean geometry is a thing and it does describe the shape of chaos and the ordering principle within the chaos of Lovecraft’s universe.
So, some of Lovecraft’s ideas I think are perhaps easier to visualize now than they might have been back before WWII. I mean, elements of Color Out of Space evoke sorts of radiation poisoning and cancer and the color itself (the notion of a color from outside the human spectrum) and the way that an ultra-dimensional intrusion into our consciousness would be perceived by those unfortunate enough to be at the epicenter of such an event is material I felt I was able to approach by looking through a lot of case histories as well. Some of the film reflects things that you’ll hear from UFO contacts over the years. I don’t believe personally the idea that we’re being polluted by mechanical alien crafts from another galaxy (the extraterrestrial hypothesis) but there are hallmarks or fingerprints on a lot of these events which point towards a distortion in the fabric of space time. A distortion in the way we perceive reality that I wanted to try and evoke in Color.
Obviously you’re talking about these very heavy ideas, heavy fears of that inexplicable, and going about stylizing that I was reminded watching this a bit of your work in Hardware where color is very expressively weaponized in that film—the deep reds and blues and orange really get you into the headspace of this infected society. This almost turns to psychedelia and operatic in how it performs an exorcism of economic and military power in that film. I was curious if you could talk about some of your early goals about how you were going to get those metaphysical fears and feelings formally into the film?
I think part of that was always going to be the location. We were extremely lucky to find the farmhouse that we used for the film. It was essential that the house and the property, the Gardner farm itself, and Arkham backwoods be a character in the film. I wanted the house to be as memorable a screen property as the Amityville house or the Overlook so I was keen to root it into a location. In real life the location was in fact pretty spooky, it quite a history on it. The atmospherics, the constant drifting mystery really helped us. I had a sense that the house actually enjoyed itself by having these weird scenes staged in it. Fresh wallpaper put up and banisters fixed and such. So yeah, that was a consideration.
One thing that you’ve added to the film yourself that was only ever maybe subtly implied in Lovecraft’s story is this focus on the body–the shell that contains these more cosmic fears. With your eventual turn into these deeply slimy, textured body horror creature designs that are doubly infused with this emotional perversity by being transformations/mutations of things we know the characters care about, I was reminded actually a little of John Carpenter’s The Thing. And I noticed you reused the Mark 13 bible quote from Hardware “NO FLESH SHALL BE SPARED” which seems to evoke that idea. Literalizing elements of this story was necessary to bring it to the screen, but can you talk about the choice to locate it in this very fleshy, clearly practically-designed horror?
I think that John Carpenter’s The Thing is the pre-imminent masterpiece of the genre. It’s probably the greatest monster movie ever made, and certainly the most Lovecraftian ever made despite not coming from Lovecraft material. I’m certainly a huge Carpenter fan and we kind of homage The Thing with the multi-headed alpaca monster. [Laughs.]
What a sight. [Laughs.]
Another part of it was to do with conducting a source of argument with Lovecraft because I’m a huge Lovecraft fan but at the same time I don’t agree with most of his principal ideas: I’m not an atheist, I’m not a nihilist, a racist, a misogynist. Some part of me wants to have an argument with him. Lovecraft disposes of his characters with a complete lack of emotion and what I wanted to do was contextualize by putting my own family members in harm’s way. I thought, “What if this was happening to my own mother? My own children?” Not just some cipher. So, an essential part of the movie was drawn from my own mother. She was a very strong women and it took her ten years to die from lymphoma. Nursing her for that period I got to see how cancer changes people both physically and psychologically. How people start to mutate and grow into things that are very different from the people that we loved.
The daughter in this film is very into witchcraft and I noticed you had an Occult, Ritual and Witchcraft Supervisor and I was curious what kind of role they played on the film and how witchcraft fits into your life and these Lovecraftian ideas of these things beyond human sight?
I like to keep an open mind about things and when you’re dabbling with the supernatural it’s always wise to try and stay on the right side of it. In a superstitious way I wanted to make certain that whatever rituals and whatever words were spoken in the course of the movie were spoken in the course of the movie that it had a positive or protective effect over the rest of the production. In the Lovecraft universe this is particularly important because of the existence of the Necronomicon—the black book of ancient lore that is at the center of many of his stories. This has been confused because in real life there are several different counterfeit Necronomicon’s that have been forged and put into circulation and these different books all have different styles of magic in them. The commonly available paperback is heavily influenced by Aleister Crowley and Sumerian magic so I wanted to make certain that whatever we did in the film itself was going to hex us all. [Laughs.] So, I think our witchcraft adviser did well.
Color Out of Space opens in theaters on Friday, January 24.